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Bomb Trial to Move Out of Oklahoma

Courts: Federal judge shifts case to Denver, ruling that need for fair proceedings outweighs desire of many to attend.

February 21, 1996|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City bombing trial will be moved to Denver because the rights of Timothy J. McVeigh and Terry L. Nichols to a fair hearing outweigh the interests of thousands of the victims and their families to be able to attend the proceedings, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Richard P. Matsch, who sits in Denver and was appointed to the case last year, said the bombing last April 19 of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was so traumatic to residents here that it is virtually impossible to conduct the trial close to the site.

In describing McVeigh and Nichols, former Army buddies charged in the bombing, the judge said that "they have been demonized" by an Oklahoma public that appears largely convinced that they are guilty and should be put to death.

"The court is acutely aware of the wishes of the victims of the Oklahoma City explosion to attend this trial and that it will be a hardship for those victims to travel to Denver," the judge said.

Nevertheless, he said, "the interests of the victims in being able to attend this trial in Oklahoma are outweighed by the court's obligation to assure that the trial be conducted with fundamental fairness and with due regard to all constitutional requirements."

Local leaders in Oklahoma City were displeased with the ruling, including Gov. Frank Keating, who suggested that it was an "easy decision" for Matsch because he lives in Denver.

Federal prosecutors here and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in Washington also were disappointed. Reno noted that the government cannot appeal the decision. But she said that the U.S. Attorney's Office "will begin working with the victims" to make arrangements for them to at least monitor the trial.

Many of the survivors and the victims' relatives reacted angrily to the change of venue. Many of them are government workers and cannot afford to travel to Denver.

As news of the ruling spread here, state and local officials began working with officials in Colorado to see if homes there might be available for Oklahoma victims during the trial. And Oklahoma Atty. Gen. Drew Edmondson said that a local victims' fund, which has raised millions of dollars, might be used to help set up bus caravans to the Denver courthouse.

But even those alternatives did not assuage the anger felt by many of the estimated 2,000 people who lost a close relative in what was the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

Janet Walker, who lost her husband, ran to her television set Tuesday morning to hear the news. "When they said it, my heart just started beating so hard," she said.

John Carlisle, who lost his wife, put it this way: "The Constitution says the trial should be held here, and I feel the trial should be held here since the crime was committed here. I am very upset."

Randy Cochran, an administrator for Project Heartland, which was set up to counsel victims, said that many victims were hoping to attend at least some of the trial to bring closure to their emotions.

"The more involved they are," he said, "the more it helps them to work through their grief."

Prosecutors had urged the judge to keep the trial in Oklahoma. They suggested Tulsa as a site, but defense attorneys convinced Matsch that the extensive local media coverage, combined with the high number of dead and injured, made it impossible to find an impartial jury among Oklahoma residents.

The bombing claimed the lives of 169 people and injured 600. It also resulted in more than $650 million in property damage.

But even flush in victory, McVeigh's lawyer cautioned that should media coverage in Denver spoil the jury pool there, he would consider asking Matsch to move the trial once more.

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